Concord officials support proposed toll hikes

Monitor staff
Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The city of Concord is in favor of raising toll rates to speed up the widening of Interstate 93.

According to a Nov. 20 letter written by City Manager Tom Aspell Jr., the city supports the New Hampshire Department of Transportation’s proposal to increase toll rates in March because the I-93 project is vital to continuing the growth and development of its local economy.

“The current configuration of I-93 is unable to accommodate the growing business and visitor use ... through our region,” the letter reads. “The City has committed significant dollars to make additional improvements to our downtown that are contingent on the ultimate configuration of a widened I-93.”

But some local transportation businesses said otherwise at a public hearing Tuesday night in Concord, noting that their industry already faces numerous regulations and rising costs.

“This will result in direct increase in operating costs,” said Kevin Murray, of Associated Grocers of New England, which is headquartered in Pembroke. “We’ll either have to absorb it or eventually pass it along.”

And Brian Lewis of New Hampshire Distributors, a beer and alcohol distributing service based out of Concord, said his business would have to bear the increased costs until it could alter its agreements with its brewers.

“(That increased cost) can be the difference between buying a piece of equipment or filling a job,” he said.

The increased rates are projected to bring in an additional $36 million a year for major turnpike projects, according to DOT estimates. The department says that 54 percent of the increase would be shouldered by out-of-state drivers.

If approved, the cash rates for tolls in Hooksett and Bedford would increase from $1 to $1.50, Dover and Rochester tolls would increase from 75 cents to $1, and Hampton tolls would go from $2 to $2.50. Merrimack’s ramp tolls would see no increase and would be eliminated in 2020.

Drivers with EZ-Pass devices would continue to receive discounts, but they would still see tolls rise.

I-93, the main highway through Concord, is in line for several big projects that could benefit from the additional toll revenue. The projects include a widening from Interstate 89 to Interstate 393, south of Exit 14; Exit 6 improvements and F.E. Everett Turnpike widening in Manchester; Everett Turnpike widening from Nashua to Bedford; and Exit 7 reconstruction in Manchester. The DOT estimates these projects could be sped up anywhere from three to six years if additional funding was available.

As for Concord, the department pointed to its plans to install an additional lane on I-93 as a means to reduce traffic and encourage tourism. Driving data indicate that drivers stuck in Friday afternoon gridlock between Concord and Hooksett spend an average of 15 minutes’ additional travel time, wasting $5 per trip and creating an annual net loss of $1.6 million, according to the DOT’s proposal.

Christopher Waszczuk, deputy commissioner of the state’s DOT, said the overall toll increase would be about 27 percent, saying some users, such as passenger vehicles, would see a 50 percent increase, while others would see only a 17 percent increase; however, that figure is contingent upon the Legislature adopting a commuter/frequent user plan.

Last week, the Executive Council voted, 3-2, to amend the latest draft of the state’s 10-year transportation plan to factor in the projected revenue the toll increase would generate, despite those increases having not yet been approved.

The Executive Council will meet Dec. 20 to hold a final vote on whether to recommend the plan to Gov. Chris Sununu, who has come out strongly against toll increases. Should they approve it, the plan will be discussed at their Jan. 4 meeting, Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky said.

The deadline for the governor to make changes to the transportation plan and send it to the Legislature is Jan. 15.

A second public hearing will take place at Manchester City Hall at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)